The Australian Electoral Commission is the place where the process that puts Australian Politicians in their places in Parliament is organised. You wouldn’t visit it for the fine architecture, or for a tour of its labyrinth of offices or for a chat with its large force of functionaries. You probably couldn’t! Most of it has a locked down, closed off, “secret electioneers business” air about it.
However, if you’re a twelve-year-old future voter, a visit to the Australian Electoral Commission’s Education Centre is well worthwhile.
A tour begins in the theatrette, with a DVD on the history of elections in Australia, from the time when only landowners could vote, until the referendum in 1967 which, officially and nationally, extended the vote to all aboriginals and effected universal suffrage.
Then it’s off to the next room to learn all about the Who? Why? How?, Where? and When of the electoral process, at a series of brightly colour-coded activity stations.
The culmination of the programme is a mock election with all the paraphernalia – polling booth ballot box, ballot paper and tally board. The candidates are four students (dubbed apples, pears, peaches and bananas) and the guards, scrutineers, vote-counters and voters are the remaining twenty-six. After much juggling of the fruits, much recounting and redistributing of votes, we all get the principles of preferences and absolute majority – I think!
The big, bold, bright and angular National Museum of Australia sits on the edge of Canberra’s Lake Burley Griffin. It breaks the balance of Walter Burley Griffin’s art deco city, the decorous white of the New Parliament building and the muted green of the landscape with its unruly lines. From a distance it’s an attention-grabbing architectural interloper. Up close, from outside it’s overwhelming. Inside it’s magical.
You can dip into the past and find fascinating (and minute) details like the origin of the “furphy”. You can dance through the present (literally) following the moves of young aboriginal dancers. You can design your own space-craft, don three-d glasses and watch it negotiate the 22nd century freeways in K Space’s theatrette.
But the best and most beautiful space at the National Museum is the garden Of Australian Dreams. The gallery brochure describes it as a “rich landscape of symbols and meanings drawn from Australian life”
A giant map spreads across the surface of the garden and under the Museum building, bringing together the conventional map of Australia as well maps of aboriginal boundaries, vegetation, geology, roads and electorates. The broad yellow line which intersects the area, represents the line devised by the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494 to divide the globe into Portuguese and Spanish territories. Red and white poles represent the way that the early surveyors read the Australian landscape. A walk-in camera obsura helps you to interpret the garden. The bush is represented by a stand of gums. The rudimentary white “Dream House” represents the built environment of Australia. The gnome perched on a ledge on the “Dream House” represents the “Antipodean” that Europeans of the Middle Ages imagined lived in the mythical land down under.
Always available to guide you and answer any questions on the National Museum of Australia, is a large, well informed, endlessly gracious, multi-cultural and multi-lingual retinue of guides.
Canberra doesn’t quite fit with that line up of big names does it? Yet, it has more in common with these cities than meets the eye – apart from the obvious fact that they are all, of course, capitals of their countries.
I was fare welled with a few raised eyebrows and more than a few expressions of heartfelt sympathy when I set off last March, with thirty twelve-year-olds, to learn all about the engine room of the Australian nation and to discover what makes Canberra one of the world’s great cities.
We began our tour with a drive through Yarralumia, the embassy precinct. It was a good place to start because, in the matter of embassies, Canberra has quite outshone its sister capitals. Generally, in any country, embassies are grand establishments, but generally, they’re only distinguishable by a fluttering foreign flag or a coat of arms. In Canberra, however, each embassy building reflects the unique architectural style of its country; there’s the Chinese Embassy’s grand pagoda, the long house of Papua New Guinea, the rambling Georgian mansion of the USA, the Cape Dutch style of the South African High Commission and the strikingly beautiful edifice where the representatives of Thailand reside. Disappointingly, Aotearoa New Zealand seems to have drawn its inspiration from a drab 1970s office block in downtown Dunedin! Shame! Still, it doesn’t detract from the whole world of architecture and the line-up of glittering internationals in the winding, leafy streets of Yarralumia.